St. Joseph Hessen Cassel Church, located south of Fort Wayne on what was once called the Piqua Road, has been a beacon of faith for Catholics since its founding in the early 1840s. The first settlers were immigrant farmers who came to the area from Hessen Cassel in the diocese of Fulda, Germany, and established a German colony in Indiana that was similar to their former village in its life and culture.
A century and three-quarters later, the parish population is about 1,100 families strong. The names of the founding families — Sorg, Minnich, Herber and Wyss, to name a few — are still on the list of St. Joseph parishioners. As Father William Kummer, pastor for the last four years, pointed out, “stability is certainly a character trait of this parish.”
St. Joseph is a thriving, faith-filled parish with many active ministries. One that especially pleases Father Kummer is a food pantry that has been in operation for more than 30 years. Currently under the direction of Mary and Lannie Ross, the pantry, which operates out of the parish office, is open on Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon and Saturday from 9 a.m. until all have been assisted. It serves between 200 and 225 area families each month, prompting Mary to describe it as “so worthwhile” and “just spectacular” in its mission. A dedicated volunteer group orders food from the Community Harvest Food Bank at a nominal price, then picks it up and helps distribute it.
“They know our patrons,” Mary said, and relationships develop between workers and shoppers. “People feel very comfortable.” Area high schools also conduct food drives, the volunteer fire department donates money to buy hams at Christmas, and private donations come in as well. “People are so good,” said Ross.
Another important parish ministry is a grief group run by the three-member team of Donna Gleason, Carolyn Sorg and Kathy Hartman. The ministry was founded in 2004 by Sorg, who brought the idea back from Michigan, where a friend’s parish had such a ministry. With the encouragement of then-pastor Father Edward Erpelding, she began a group at St. Joseph, which now plays a vital role in both the parish and the wider community. “We’re not licensed counselors,” said Gleason. “We’re just listeners.” Following the philosophy of recognized author, educator and grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt, she said, “we companion the bereaved.” A typical grief group consists of half a dozen people who meet once a month at the church, along with a facilitator, for discussion and problem-solving.
St. Joseph is also adept at fundraising while having fun. “We sponsor a famous and successful parish fall festival with all the usual Catholic things — a chicken dinner, bingo game, car show, softball tournament, country store … and music to the wee hours,” said Father Kummer. “It’s really fun.”
Another popular annual event is the Notre Dame Smoker, now in its 22nd year. Held the first Sunday in March, the stag event draws 800 attendees for an evening of raffles, food and games. Past and present Notre Dame football players attend to mingle with guests, sign autographs and talk about the upcoming season. It typically nets $25,000 to $35,000, which goes for big-ticket items like new windows in the school or electronics for the computer lab. The smoker, now smoke-free for many years, was the early brainchild of good friends Ed Merz, Chuck Litchfield, Kevin Harris, Bobby Rauner, George Rupright and the late Les Sorgen.
Merz pointed out that more than 70 men of the parish work the event. “It wouldn’t be successful without all the guys,” he said. He noted that younger men are beginning to take over. In describing the long-running popularity of the smoker, Merz could only say “we’re very blessed.”
Father Kummer also has high praise for St. Joseph School, a hallmark of the parish since its opening in the mid-1850s. It currently has an enrollment of 136 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Principal Rose Worman said that the school’s mission is to assist the Catholic Church in its teaching of the Gospel and to support parents in their obligation as teachers of their children. “We strive to prepare every child spiritually, academically and physically by giving them the information, training and knowledge necessary to develop their talents to serve God and their country.”
Students have daily religion class and attend Mass twice weekly. There is a second- and eighth-grade sacramental buddies program. Seventh graders study the “theology of the body,” and Father Kummer personally prepares eighth graders for the sacrament of confirmation. Students participate in community service projects at Ave Maria House and St. Anne’s retirement home, support food drives for the parish food pantry and collect items for the troops overseas.
Academically, St. Joseph is fully accredited in all educational areas and offers SGO awards as well as Indiana State School Choice scholarships. Students participate in a spelling bee, geography bee and have qualified nationally in a history bee. Art and computer classes are also available, as well as choir and band.
Physically, students are prepared as well. There are weekly physical education classes, and they have the opportunity to play football, basketball, volleyball, track, cross country and soccer.
Principal Worman called St. Joseph School a “special place” with a unique environment. Father Kummer both echoed and enlarged on that sentiment. “What is special is the kindness and concern that people show for each other,” he said. Though the church is sizable, “it has that small and close feeling.”
St. Joseph-Hessen Cassel
11337 Old U.S. Hwy 27 S.
Fort Wayne, IN 46816
Saturday: 5 p.m.
Sunday: 7:30, 9,10:30 a.m.
Holy Day: See bulletin
Weekday: M-F 8:15 a.m. and first Saturday
Reconciliation: Sat. 3:30-4:30 p.m.
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